Working for an Antitrust Boutique: An Interview with Aaron Gott

When thinking about legal careers, certain practice settings come to mind most frequently such as big law, government, and judicial clerkships but most lawyers practice in smaller firms. Recently, I got the chance to catch up with one such lawyer, Aaron Gott, who works at Bona Law PC in San Diego, a firm which focuses on antitrust law. I met Aaron when I was working as a litigator for the Institute for Justice in Minneapolis.

The story of how Aaron landed his first legal job is one of my favorite stories. He graduated from Florida State University at the top of his class but struggled in Minnesota, trying to find a job for six months. Now, he works for an thriving antitrust boutique in San Diego. The story of how he got from point A to point B is in our interview below.

KMB: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the law?

AG: It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a lawyer. That idea probably started with watching the show, The Practice, in the eighth grade.

Looking at the specifics of how I decided to go to law school, I graduated from college, went active duty in the army, and then was looking at where I wanted to go next. While in the Army, I worked in public affairs, which had a major persuasive component. I was advocating for the unit I worked for and I thought that law was a good next place to go. Everybody told me I was a great writer and writing was really important to lawyers.

 KMB: How did you decide where to go for law school?

AG: I was in the army for a total of ten years and knew that I didn’t want to spend another decade in the army. I did a lot of traveling as public affairs officer around the country to different training events and I decided to apply to good law schools in places I liked during my travels—and one of those places was Florida. I had never been to Tallahassee when I applied to Florida State for law school but I grew up in Iowa so I thought it would be a nice change to have good weather.

I got into a number of law schools and FSU stood out with the care and attention they paid me during my campus visit. While visiting campus, I got to sit down with one of the Deans and a professor. It was a more service oriented school and I thought that would be a better education experience for me. I did 2 1/2 years at FSU and a semester at Minnesota.

KMB: Tell me about your law school experience and your internships. 

AG: I thought I might want to do criminal defense before law school but by my second semester, I realized while taking criminal law that it would be a depressing career with lots of defeat. I excelled in civil procedure and classes dealing with civil litigation more.

My 1L Summer, I clerked for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation for the Division of Condominiums.

My 2L Summer, I was a summer associate at a medium sized national law firm in Naples, Florida.

The legal market was still really bad and that firm was having some trouble. Right before I showed up to be a summer associate, they lost a lot of business. So the national office decided that Naples was not going to get an associate and I did not get an offer.

KMB: How did you decide what area of law you wanted to practice?

AG: Before I got to law school, I wasn’t ever a really good student. I had about a 3.2 in undergrad. I was a hard worker in the Army. When I finished my first semester at FSU, it turned out I was the top student in the class. It kind of floored me. I didn’t think I was capable of that. A lot of it had to do with  my writing experience. After that, I set my sights on a shiny litigation career with lots of writing and complex litigation with hard questions involved.

KMB: How did you end up landing in Minnesota?

AG:  The legal market was still really bad when I was a summer associate and the firm I worked for in Naples was having some trouble. Right before I showed up to be a summer associate, they lost a lot of business. So the national office decided that Naples was not going to get an associate and I did not get an offer.

It didn’t matter to me where I worked  geographically as long as I was working on complex litigation. My girlfriend was from Minnesota and I’d always liked it so we moved there.  Once I decided to build my career there, I also decided to complete my last semester of law school Minnesota in order to learn about the legal community there and position myself to get a job. I quickly learned that FSU doesn’t mean anything in Minnesota so I had difficulty. I didn’t have a lot of connections.

 KMB:  Can you tell the story of how you got connected to me? 

AG:  I read a lot of blogs in law school, and when I was a 1L, I read a guest post by Clark Neily at the Institute for Justice about judicial engagement and it resonated with me. So I emailed Clark, he emailed back, and we’ve been friends ever since. The point is, I didn’t contact Clark so he could help my career; we shared an interest in libertarian ideas and built our relationship from that. So my advice to students is that they shouldn’t take a direct approach with networking and try to find someone who can help their career. Try to build a relationship. Be genuinely curious in the people you’re meeting.

Anyway, Clark Neily emailed everyone in the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota office, including you, introducing me to your office over email and you responded saying we should get coffee.

KMB: From my perspective, after we had that first coffee, you were consistently in touch and quickly became the person who was always willing to help us at IJ-Minnesota. I remember you always being there. I talk about you with students a lot as an example of someone who perfectly walked the line between polite persistence and being annoying. You were never annoying but we always knew we could count on you for free help.

AG: From my perspective, Minnesota was a difficult time because. I had a lot of setbacks. I was at the top of my law school class with no job. I was unemployed for six months in Minnesota. Then, I did document review, which really sucks.  I knew I needed to do whatever I could to get a job. I was used to working hard and believed that if I continued to do that,  people would be impressed. If I could get my foot in the door and do work, even if it was unpaid, someone would notice that.

KMB: Absolutely we noticed it. You kept emailing saying you were willing to help us with anything for free. It took several of those emails for me to actually believe you and start asking for help. I remember that we needed someone to hold a camera at a press conference for one of our cases and you stepped up to the plate. You became so reliable that one day, I wanted to send a draft of a brief I had written to a senior attorney but I really wanted it to be proofed and cite-checked one last time before I sent it. I emailed you asking if you could do it and you fully proofed and cite-checked it in an hour and half! You were always in the back of my mind as someone who I really want to get a great job and I knew I would help you however I could.

AG: I remember that!

KMB: With a tough six months in Minnesota, how did you end up landing your first legal job?

AG: You and Anthony at IJ-Minnesota connected me to a friend of yours, Jarod Bona, and we wrote an amicus brief together supporting your Winona case before the Minnesota Supreme Court. This work was all unpaid by the way. I never would have been invited to write that amicus brief had I not gotten that first coffee with you.

When I wrote that amicus brief with Jarod, he was impressed with my writing and offered to bring me on to his new firm. (He was moving from Minnesota, where he was working in big law, to San Diego to start his own antitrust boutique).

By this time, I had also started working part-time. My dad had started an ice cream company, David’s Famous. Dairy is a highly regulated industry and he needed a new lawyer so I served as the Vice President and General Counsel of his company part-time.

Jarod had just started his firm and didn’t have enough work to keep me busy all of the time but he did have enough to give me some work.

I worked for Jarod and my dad for about a year from a remote office in Minnesota.

Then, I moved to California in 2015 to work full-time for Jarod’s firm, Bona Law PC.

KMB: What does your practice involve?

AG:  I manage our day to day litigation so right now, that’s 4 antitrust cases at the trial level and a few appeals here and there. Right now, we have one antitrust appeal that concerns 12 Orange County municipalities and state action immunity. We also have a criminal antitrust appeal where the defendant was convicted of bid rigging in real estate foreclosure auctions in the 9th Circuit.

I also have a case before the Supreme Court, Salt River Project v. Tesla Energy (which has since settled), where we filed an amicus brief also regarding state action immunity. That’s our second Supreme Court brief on the state action immunity—we filed one in NC Dental Examiners v. FTC, and the court actually adopted some of our unique reasoning in its opinion.

 

Attorneys that are underneath me do more of the basic research and I’ll do the first draft of the brief. Sometimes I’ll have junior attorneys do the first draft so they can learn and grow.

I have done arguments before the 9th circuit, summary judgment arguments, and a lot of arguments on discovery issues.

I was only on trial once in a personal injury case, which I took because I wanted to go to trial.

Bona Law has two offices, one in New York and one in San Diego. We just hired a lawyer who practiced antitrust law for big firms for 30 years.

In starting the New York office,  we are hoping to compete with big law firms.

KMB: How does your firm get cases?

AG: Through our website and our blog. Those are the two most important things for business. We post a lot of articles about antitrust issues so when people google an issue, we’re usually the first or second website to pop up.

We also get referrals from attorneys that represent clients in other matters and contact us when an antitrust issue pops us.

KMB: What is your day to day life like?

AG: I generally work from home and have an office in my house. I check emails, have some phone calls with clients or potential clients, and then close off from email and phone to do some work in isolation and away from distractions for a couple hours if I have writing to do. My afternoons involve managing my team, managing things we have to get done, and keeping all of the attorneys informed.

I don’t go in the office very often. I do have to travel quite a bit. Just yesterday, I had to travel for a summary judgment and status conference.

I also write blog posts and write a lot of articles for the website.

We do operate with billable hours.

I try to keep a good work/life balance. I bill 40-50 hours a week, which means I work between 50-60 hours a week.

KMB: What does antitrust practice involve?

AG: Most antitrust attorneys are either in big law or work for elite plaintiff’s firms. Antitrust boutiques are rare. We’re probably one of the first ones. More are coming about. When we came onto the scene, antitrust attorneys worked exclusively for big law firms.

Technology has changed a lot. Antitrust cases are some of the most complex litigation there is. Discovery is huge so you used to need an army of associates to review millions of documents. Now, you can use third party discovery vendors and get much better pricing than big law. AI is a big thing. We haven’t used full fledged AI yet. You can do a lot of things with search terms.

All of this required huge infrastructure so it used to be that only big firms could do it.

KMB: Why is antitrust litigation so complex?
AG: It is complex because the issues are complex. It involves sophisticated business practices. We are dealing with conspiracies and monopolies. In both cases, you’re talking alleged conspiracies that span years. Discovery is a wide net. Antitrust cases also typically involve lots of sophisticated parties. For big class cases, there will be 5-20 defendants.

KMB: Can you talk about an example of a case you take on? Do you do criminal cases?

We don’t do criminal cases other than criminal antitrust appeals. I was in San Francisco yesterday for a class case that alleges a conspiracy among Japanese manufacturers of a certain electronic component. There are two different markets involved. Before we came on the case, it was a DOJ investigation but DOJ closed it without an action. Our client is a Japanese manufacturer. Two sets of class action plaintiffs sued our client alleging they conspired with another company together to fix prices for a dozen years.

KMB: What is your advice for law students about entering the legal profession?

AG: There are a lot of things about being a lawyer that are hard. It is important to find people you enjoy working with and a subject matter and environment you enjoy to mitigate things that suck about being a lawyer. You’re always competing with the other side, they’re always trying to get a leg up on you, and have to watch your back. It is like combat in a way. There are fun things about it too. I love competition. I love fighting. You have to take care of yourself as a lawyer

KMB: What advice do you have for law students about getting the most out of their law school experience?

AG:  Meditating and getting plenty of exercise is really important in law school. It is very hard to create those habits and keep them. Create a habit and try to keep it.

The most important thing I did in law school was law review. Gaining experience in working on academic articles and then having to write one myself really developed my skill set as a lawyer.

If you are going to do civil litigation, take every opportunity you can to write papers in school and get feedback from your professors.

If you’re interested in getting in touch with Aaron, let me know and I will put you in touch.

 

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